Julia Sanger and her mother, Donna Sanger, carried a cash register, some kitchen linens and a few electronics in their laps as they returned Tuesday from the Park Ridge Trading Company gourmet kitchen shop they own in flood-ravaged Old Ellicott City.
It was all the Sangers could salvage in the 10 minutes they were given on an escorted trip into the historic Howard County town that remains closed off after being devastated by flash flooding Sunday for the second time in less than two years. County officials organized the quick visits Tuesday, offering shopkeepers and property owners, homeowners and apartment dwellers their first chance to access their properties and retrieve essentials.
On Tuesday, two days after slow-moving thunderstorms dumped 10 inches of rain in the steep-sided valley, overwhelming stream beds and sending torrents of water and debris down streets, the cleanup continued and the body of Sgt. Eddison A. Hermond, 39, a Maryland National Guardsman who was swept away while trying to help a shopkeeper, was discovered in the Patapsco River.
The waters rose much higher in the Sangers’ storefront at the lower end of Main Street this time, they said. In 2016, the water mark inside the store was at 7 feet; this time it reached the high ceiling. Despite the devastation, which flushed out much of the store and even flipped a checkout counter that was bolted to the floor, the mother and daughter want to reopen.
“Don't give up on this little town. People who are here are strong and are fighters, we need people to still believe in us,” Julia Sanger said. “Ellicott City as a whole, there's something special about it and worth preserving.”
As residents and shop owners lined up Tuesday morning outside the county government building on Court House Drive, waiting for credentials and their turn to be taken down into the town, county officials also walked a group of journalists down Main Street. National reporters from outlets including NBC, the Weather Channel and Telemundo filmed stand-ups in the muck, swarmed around a patch of caved-in sidewalk and pointed cameras at workers shoveling out store entrances.
Bulldozers had scraped away much of the mud on the main road, but waves of the sludge spread like sand in a desert along the sidewalks and across parking lots. Though most of the road was intact, gaps in the concrete sidewalks revealed caverns where much of the earth had been washed out. A gaping hole opened up the floor of the former Caplan’s department store, now women’s gym Miss Fit.
Dust kicked up by construction vehicles and the fetid smell of sewage and garbage filled the air.
Spray-painted X marks on buildings indicated they had been searched for survivors, and different marks indicated assessments of the buildings for structural soundness. Some buildings on the eastern, lower end of town were the least structurally sound — residents and business owners could not access those, even with an escort. Howard County firefighters are offering to help residents by retrieving necessities in the most structurally unsound building, said Rob Smeltzer, a special operations officer with the fire department.
Amid the destruction were small pieces of normalcy. Jars of jams, soda and popcorn lined a shelf behind a broken-out window at E.C. Pops popcorn shop. Two purses hung in the window of A Divaz Boutique, above overturned counters and broken glass. In Junk Girl, dresses dangled from hooks in the ceiling untouched but for muddy watermarks on the skirts.
As Sally Fox Tennant waited Tuesday morning for a county truck to escort her to her vintage shop, Discoveries of Ellicott City, she worried that it was hit harder than last time. After all the work that went into fighting to reopen, she said, she's not as sure she's ready to do it all over again, though she’s waiting to assess the damage.
"It's a matter of dollars and cents. There's a difference between hardship and losing everything," she said.
Max Robinson, whose videos of Sunday’s flood have gone viral, awaited an escort to his apartment near Portalli's restaurant. With only 10 minutes to get in and out, he said, his focus was on grabbing the essentials and a few days’ worth of clothes.
Jeff Braswell, who owns several properties on Main Street, said he was four weeks from opening Jaxon Edwin, a watch and barber shop with a coffee bar, when the flood hit. Braswell said shop owners need a united front as they address reopening. Main Street, he said, will need "anchors" to thrive again.
"We need to work together,” Braswell said.
But Alex Roth doesn’t plan on moving back to his apartment above Bean Hollow, he said Tuesday. His 1-year-old daughter was with him, visiting for the weekend, when the flood hit. Roth ran across the street to a friend’s apartment above Georgia Grace Cafe by the train tracks as the water rose.
“My daughter stays with me on the weekends,” he said. “How would I sleep at night knowing my home could be washed away by the rain?”
As he stood in line for his chance to visit to his apartment, Roth said he doesn’t have anywhere permanent to stay.
“They’re helping us go down to get our stuff, so we can carry our apartment out in our hands. To go where?” he said.
Roth is taking time off from his full-time job to deal with the fallout from the flood and will lose about $600 a month from a side job he held at the now-destroyed Georgia Grace. But, he said, “it could have been a whole lot [expletive] worse.”
As the residents and business owners waited, Nathan Sowers showed up with pizzas. The owner of River House Pizza Co. made more than 300 pizzas to give for free to flood work crews and flood victims even though his original location in Old Columbia Pike’s Tongue Row on the outskirts of the flood’s wreckage remained closed.
Sowers, who lives nearby and has another location on U.S. 40, said he decided to start delivering the pizza simply because “I can.”
“I’m just trying to feed them,” Sowers said. “Pizza makes people happy.”
“It gives you a little bit of hope,” said Chris Copec, Sowers’ neighbor, who helped him deliver.
The Sangers also found hope inside the remains of Park Ridge Trading. “Mighty Pig,” a small, ceramic pig figurine that managed to survive in 2016, somehow also made it through the 2018 flooding. Julia Sanger said she left it in the shop for now — "He's looking over us."
While they may sell remaining inventory at farmers’ markets in the coming weeks, they also want to get back into their Main Street storefront.
"It's like, OK, when can we get back in and start shoveling," Julia Sanger said.
Access to Old Ellicot City
The flood damaged business district of Old Ellicott City remains closed to the public. Residents, merchants and building owners who wish to access their properties may go to St. Peter's Episcopal Church at 3695 Rogers Ave. starting at 8 a.m. Wednesday. Those seeking access must have ID or other documentation showing affiliation with the property. Access is only being offered under escort and for limited periods of time to document damage and retrieve essential items.